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Downstream Panic!

Platform(s): PSP
Genre: Puzzle
Publisher: Atari
Developer: Eko Software

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PSP Review - 'Downstream Panic!'

by Tom Baker on May 19, 2008 @ 12:53 a.m. PDT

Downstream Panic! is an unpredictable, fast-paced, tactical puzzle-action that places players in the position of a sea-creature preservationist out to save the world from a fantastic cyclone that has blasted the world's fish into the Earth's atmosphere.

Genre: Puzzle
Publisher: Atari
Developer: Eko System
Release Date: February 5, 2008

The video game industry has been following a worrying trend lately of pumping out a slew of colorful but shallow puzzle games. It seems like everyone is trying to tap into the market of casual gamers who swarmed to the Nintendo DS and Brain Age in droves. Luckily, Downstream Panic! isn't a rip-off of Brain Age — it's reminiscent of Lemmings instead.

When describing Downstream Panic!, I am tempted to abandon my cherished reviewer integrity and just say that "It's Lemmings, but with fish," and head down to the pub for the night, but I think I owe it to people to see this one through. The story, for lack of a better word, revolves around the world's fish being swept out of the ocean by a hurricane, and you (presumably as a part of some elaborate Greenpeace mission) have to get them back into the water from giant, floating fish bowls in the sky. It's a simple enough concept for a simple enough game, and like most puzzlers, you never really need to trouble yourself with the ins and outs of the why, but more the how.

There are 80 levels, and trust me when I say that they are punishing. I have a certain hatred for games that set up elaborate puzzles and then laugh at you when you fail, and Downstream Panic! has to be one of the tougher members of this group. Every move will have to be assessed and tested before the winning combination is found, but don't expect the game to hold your hand throughout. Tips are limited in the knowledge they impart, and you are only ever given a vague outline of how to use the items. This is one game where you'll be left on your own right from the start.

To get through the plethora of levels, you will be given a number of items with which you can activate traps, blow away obstacles or chase off hungry birds or sharks who may munch on your fish. They're all fairly basic but effective in what they do to the gameplay. Unfortunately, they seem squandered because the game forces you to stick to one path to accomplish each level.

The ability to go back and retry the levels once you've completed them is made far more entertaining. With the option to buy items at the beginning of the round, you can save more fish, grab that elusive gold coin and better your score. This makes the "one strategy per level" idea sting a bit less and lengthens the game by a good few hours — not that Downstream Panic! really needs it, since each level practically requires a PhD from the university of puzzle games.

The controls are intuitive enough, with the analog nub moving your cursor and use of the buttons being kept to a bare minimum, which completely suits the game's style. The analog nub may feel a little sluggish, especially when some of the puzzles require fast reactions and timing. The cursor also feels surprisingly inaccurate during tasks that require the focus of a professional marksman, such as taking out enemies or blowing up a specific section of land, sometimes causing you to waste the precious few items you started with, and you'll have to give it another go.

Although I may have found Downstream Panic! to be challenging, some people are going to find it enjoyable. Now, I enjoy having my intelligence ridiculed as much as the next person, but the limited help that the title gives you is bordering on the sadistic. In one level, you are given a fan with which you can open floodgates, and the tip tells you this but not that you can use a fan consecutive times on flood gates in order to extend the period for which they are open. It's a seemingly simple piece of puzzle work, but when you're flying blind, it's a nightmare to work out how items can be used in different manners.

The addition of a survival mode sounds promising, but it might as well be achieved through sacrificing a small calf for all the effort that's required to unlock it. What you see is pretty much what you get, and the added unlockable extras, such as the ability to change the fish into a variety of different wacky creatures, feels like unnecessary padding to a game that really doesn't need it. I do have to applaud Eko System for not falling into the trap of pretension by making Downstream Panic! more than what it is: simple, casual pick-up-and-play enjoyment.

The presentation hearkens back to LocoRoco, and this works to the game's credit. The colorful backdrops and animations suit the gameplay and addictive nature of the level design. The way the levels look and your ability to affect the landscape reminded me somewhat of Worms, which only made the game more enjoyable to play, since you get to think of the environments as moldable to your designs.

Downstream Panic! draws from the Worms series again with the introduction of hilarious cut scenes to break up level segments and introduce new features. It's only a small, superficial addition, but it shows that the development team has put extra thought into keeping the players interested when the puzzle segments get to be too much. The water effects are well rendered, and the physics while it's running down the landscape are realistic enough. The fish are captivating to watch, and the number and different types of fish actually make you feel a pang of guilt when they're ravaged by a shark or as one is left behind while the rest go free. You may pass the level, but you'll lose part of your soul.

The audio is a different story. The development team responsible for the chirping fish and repetitive music must have had some vendetta against the sanity of their audience. When a fish dies, it lets a small scream, necessary so that you don't lose your entire group without realizing it, but annoying when you have to listen to a hundred of the little buggers perish. The music is akin to the unimaginative jingles in elevators and only changes when you complete a level — where you'll have to listen to a short, looped song segment that includes the voices of the fish. The necessity of having the sound on as part of the gameplay means that muting it is not really an option, but if you value your brain, you will shut it off as soon as possible, before you start humming it to your friends.

Downstream Panic! is obviously aimed at the increasingly large market of casual gamers, which developers seem all too eager to placate nowadays. However, Downstream Panic! is a solid effort, and for all my gripes about it being shallow, it does its job in keeping you occupied. It's fun, bright and charming, and it's worth checking out if you're planning on traveling somewhere, but I wouldn't blame you if this was the one that got away.

Score: 7.8/10


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